Friday, March 13, 2009

WATCHMEN Review, better late than never

By: JaysQ

It’s been a long time coming for the film adaptation of Alan Moore’s landmark graphic novel that deconstructs the archetypical superhero mold. The film rights were originally acquired in 1986 and since then its been through four directors, four screenwriters and a list of possible actors attached to the project ranging from the hilarious to the just plain absurd (Keanu Reeves as Dr. Manhattan, Tom Cruise as Ozymandias, Simon Pegg as Rorschach). Some people, including Mr. Moore himself, have even said that the story is not filmable, yet thanks to (visionary?) director Zach Snyder, Watchmen has hit the big screen. Now that the deal is done one important question remains. Was it for better or for worse? Over the past few weeks a myriad of reviews and opinions have surfaced concerning this matter. I’ve seen criticisms calling it everything from the biggest flop of the year to the best thing since sliced bread. There are valid sides to both arguments and it definitely has its shortcomings, but even with all these mixed feelings I walked out of my IMAX screening Friday night feeling satisfied. Well mostly.

Now as a ravenous fan of comic books from many different genres I have my own personal investment in Watchmen as well, and if you know nothing about the story or its characters, let me give you a very brief synopsis. Set in an alternate 1985, the glory days of costumed super-heroes have been brought to a close by a government crackdown, but after one of the masked veterans is brutally murdered, an investigation into the killer is initiated. The reunited heroes set out to prevent their own destruction, but in doing so discover a plot far more heinous than they ever expected.

To say that this film starts off with a bang is an understatement. In the opening scene we find ourselves introduced to Eddie Blake a.k.a. The Comedian (excellently played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan), an aging hero working for the government, relaxing in his home. Within a matter of moments, his quietude is abruptly and harshly disturbed as he finds himself in combat with an unknown assailant. This is an important scene for both the book and the film, and it’s done perfectly by all accounts. We’re made to feel every blow and broken bone with shocking authenticity, all the while a haunting rendition of Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable” plays in the background. The battle ends with Blake being tossed from his apartment window to the city streets below. The opening credits then roll, also with a well chosen musical selection in Bob Dylan’s “The Times they are a changing” and we see the emergence of the masked hero as well as many of the historical events that play out differently due to their presence. Sadly the movie never quite hits this high point again. It also would seem that this is the only portion that Snyder puts his own personal style on the books happenings rather than just following artist Dave Gibbon’s original artwork.

Once the premise is set, we enter the thoughts of the mentally unstable Rorschach, played by Jackie Earle Haley who really steals the show as the brutal vigilante that dons an ever-changing, inkblot mask. He is fervently investigating the murder of The Comedian and what he thinks is a plot to kill off all masked super-heroes. During the course of his inquisition we also get to meet the rest of the former masks. Dan Dreiberg, the Nite Owl, a frumpy but kind hearted retired hero. Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias, a respected businessman who was the only former hero to reveal his true identity. And finally the solitary hero to actually posses super human capabilities, John Osterman,(named Dr. Manhattan by the U.S. government, for whom he works), and his lover Laurie Juspeczyk ( Silk Spectre).

Patrick Wilson portrays Dreiberg with just the right amount of innocence and Malin Akerman is a suitable Silk Spectre, but ultimately neither of their performances stand out in any way. Matthew Goode’s Ozy, on the other hand is just bad. He plays the supposed most influential and “smartest man alive” with all the subtlety and poise of a 1980’s glam rocker. As I mentioned before the real show stopper is Haley’s Rorschach. His intensity and dedication to the character shows through in spades. After initially feeling put off by Billy Crudup as Dr. Manhattan (Especially his voice, which I had never envisioned him to sound as such), I ended up really appreciating his bemused, detachment and not feeling totally overwhelmed by his luminescent blue member (Something that cannot be said for the rest of the audience in my showing. Especially my buddy, whose snickering was present for every single scene that revealed his glowing shame). All in all, I’d say it was quality acting throughout.

At this point in the story, the real nitty gritty starts to unfold. On a live television broadcast Jon is accused of being the cause of cancer in some of his friends and former colleagues. The accusations are taken seriously and this forces him into a self-imposed exile on Mars, where he contemplates his former life. This is the next really beautiful scene of the film, specifically as we see the accident that gave Jon his powers. However, with Dr. Manhattan gone, humanity as a whole is sent into political turmoil. The Soviet Union immediately takes advantage of the seemingly defenseless U.S.A. and invades Afghanistan. Dan and Laurie end up living together after the government boots her from their living quarters and Rorschach is arrested in the middle of his investigation. Also Adrian is assaulted by an unknown assassin which lends credence to the mask killer conspiracy theory. Because of this, Nite Owl and Silk Spectre decide to come out of their forced retirement and break Rorschach out of jail.

In the midst of the jailbreak scene I felt the film was injected with some renewed vigor. Seeing Haley without the mask was incredible. I could see the pure rage behind his eyes, waiting to explode at a moment’s notice. And the things he does to his fellow inmates is just plain savage. I had goose bumps when he screams to the entire prison cafeteria “I’m not stuck in here with you, your all stuck in here with me” after dousing an attacker with a vat of scalding hot cooking oil. There are more ferocious incidents, but my favorite is a series of throwaway puns between Rorschach and his old nemesis, Big Figure (played by the best small actor of all time Danny Woodburn. I love that guy!!) and it doesn’t end well for him. You just have to see it for yourself.. Once out of prison, Jon shows up and takes Laurie away to Mars where they discuss his emotional involvement with the Earth as it plunges into Armageddon. Dan and Rorschach continue their search and end up finding something they don’t like. Apparently one of their own, namely Adrian Veidt, is a potential suspect in the murder case. They set out to confront him at his Antarctic retreat and it‘s there that he divulges his true plan: to save the world from complete destruction. Unfortunately it involves the death of millions of innocent people.

The final chapter is where I find myself having the most problems with the film. Up to this point Snyder has given us a near picture perfect, panel-by-panel adaptation of the graphic novel, but suddenly he veers down a completely different path. Rather than teleporting what’s made to look like a giant, alien squid/nightmare bomb into New York he instead sets off a series of explosions made to look like Dr. Manhattan’s awesome power around the globe. This definitely didn’t sit right with me in my initial viewing, but I couldn’t quite place my finger on what it was that bothered me about the change. It took fellow reviewer Alexandra DuPont's musings to help me realize my misgivings.

"I already know the arguments in favor of this change: It ties Veidt's plan more
directly to the other characters; the "squid" would look stupid; it brings
destruction to the whole planet instead of New York; it makes the parallels to
9/11 less blatant; yadda yadda yadda. If that makes the filmmakers feel better,
fine. But allow me to retort. First off, the "alien threat" didn't have to be a
giant squid; it could have been something more abstract, or even some kind
of massive bombardment from deep space. Second, putting the blame on an
American citizen turned into a weapon by an American laboratory accident -- superhero gone mad or no -- ultimately puts the blame for everything on
America, period. Veidt's plan is meaningless unless the threat is completely
external and all terrestrial villains are off the suspect list. I can't fathom
how Snyder and David Hayter talked themselves around this simple fact."

Neither can I.

In my final thoughts, I must once again reiterate that on a narrative and visual level I think that the Watchmen film is a success. Fans will find it a near perfect adaptation, while those with no investment in the graphic novel will still walk away satiated. This doesn’t negate the fact that Snyder does make some mistakes. He gets some of the smaller nuances of character relationships downright wrong, such as Dan and Rorschach’s awkward friendship and Jon’s reliance on Laurie as his last lingering connection to the feeling human world. Also some of the fighting sequences and (I can’t believe I’m saying this) a gratuitous sex scene feel out of place and are misrepresented from the original artwork. It’s this focus on testosterone fueled violence and special effects paired with a lackluster approach to the gravitas of the more thematic and though provoking elements of the story that lead me to believe Zach may not have been the right man for the job. Regardless, his film will effect you to some lingering degree and it is definitely a must see in the theaters.

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